Deliberate Rest

A blog about getting more done by working less

Category: Business and work (page 1 of 18)

Our ideas about work and rest in the workplace

“overwork is just one tool to fight deadlines, and not a solution of first resort”

I’ve been looking at companies that are fighting back against the culture of overwork (mainly in software, Web development and video games), and this morning came across this terrific piece by veteran developer Keith Fuller, “Fixing overwork isn’t easy, but it’s the best investment we can make“:

It’s not reasonable to suggest we make games in the complete absence of long work weeks. Of course there will be times when a measure of overwork takes place due to consensus or company ground rules. But what I would suggest as a guiding principle is this: First show me the discipline to adhere to a no-overwork policy, then we’ll talk about extending grace in exceptional times. It shouldn’t happen the other way around.

This line also jumped out at me:

Overworking any employee is bad enough, but the situation becomes even more evil when you start with people who have addictive personalities and then reward their worst impulses.

I was recently on a Malaysian radio show, talking about hobbies and deep play, and one of the points I made was exactly this: that lots of Nobel laureates (to take one population of high achievers in strenuous, competitive fields) have serious hobbies, in part because they know that otherwise they’d default to spending all their time in the lab, and that would be bad. They like their work, and often have a lot of control over their time and the resources to pursue whatever they want; but even they recognize that they’ll do better work if they do other things.

Anyway, go read the whole piece.

Entrepreneurs reading Rest

Recently I noticed several entrepreneurs and career coaches who’d reviewed Rest, and wanted to capture some links to their work.

  • Business coach Curtis McHale (his motto is “Running a successful business should leave time to be a good dad!”) argues that “The Long and Strong Career You Want is Marked by Rest.” “[D]o I recommend you read Rest? Yes, I do. More than that, I recommend you incorporate times of no work into your day. I recommend you build in weeks away from anything digital. If you can read this book and put its ideas into practice, you’re going to get more done and have longer to contribute to your field in a meaningful way.
  • Vancouver, Washington-based filmmaker and entrepreneur Chris Martin talks about rest and recovery on his Getting Work to Work podcast. He has a shrewd observation about learning to “press the reset button” on your life, and the particular challenge entrepreneurs and founders face in learning to rest.
  • “Most projects that change the world take at least 10 years,” Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong writes in his post about Rest on Medium, “so practicing the rest skillset feels important for anyone who wants to have an impact.” Good point! (Also: “I’ve see so much material out there about work, it feels like the other side of the coin, rest, has often been overlooked.” You’re welcome!)
  • Ovidijus Okinskas takes time off from writing about Java and PDF on the IDR Solutions blog to talk about Rest. “I personally found it can open you up to the ways the mind works and recovers,” he says, and “can completely alter your outlook on how you should treat the two supposed ‘opposite forces’ and allow them to benefit each other.”
  • Sustainable leadership expert David Ducheyne, Chief People Officer for Securex, suggests that “maybe we need to train (young) people in the art of rest, because many people seem to have lost it….. [I]f we talk about sustainable employability, rest might be the key to combine health and competence development.”
  • Expat career advisor Tim Rettig writes about “Why All Expats Need Regular Periods of Conscious Rest.” Most expats are not only caught in the usual cultural traps of long hours and performing busyness; “the problems… [of] adapting to a new environment come in addition to the existing problems of the modern society.” So perhaps more than most people, “Expatriates need to plan consciously during which blocks of time they work or expose themselves to other forms of stress, and during which blocks of time they make the space for conscious ways of resting.”

Of course, it’s always flattering to see people say nice things about your work, but what’s really gratifying is to see them thinking about how to put it to use. The Roman poet Horace argued that poetry should be dulce et utile, beautiful and useful (or a sweet and useful thing, depending on your preferred translation); it’s always great to see readers take a book seriously enough to apply it to their own lives.

Saiid Kobeisy talks about the importance of rest in Vogue Arabia

One of the greatest things about a book like REST is that it goes all kinds of places I don’t, and gets picked up by all kinds of interesting people. Case in point: Lebanese fashion designer Saiid Kobeisy, the subject of the Fall 2017 Haute Couture Review in Vogue Arabia.

After talking about this season’s line (which features “Light structured dresses, high collars, playing on volumes, with a touch of gold, and ivory cream colors,” in case you were wondering), the interviewer asks what he’s been reading. Kobeisy replies:

I’ve recently been flipping through the pages of a book entitled “Rest” by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. It’s about getting more work done by working less. In our busy lives, rest is defined by the absence of work, but in this book, the author explains about “active rest” which means doing activities while resting and not necessarily sleeping or watching TV. Dismissing rest suppresses our ability to think creatively and truly recharge. So I’m definitely trying to fit in some “deliberate rest” in my schedule.


Things to do the night before your vacation starts

A good complement to my recent discussion of vacations: this piece on Business Insider on things to do “before you jet off to some sunny shore:”

you need set your affairs in order at work.

The night before your vacation is a crucial time to prepare.

Effective planning will give you peace of mind while you’re catching some rays, and it will prevent problems from cropping up when you drag your sunburnt self back into the office in a few days.

Overwork as laziness: My latest pieces for Thrive Global

I’ve got a two-part article on Thrive Global up today, around the concept of overwork as laziness.

We think of overwork as a sign that we’re in-demand, living life to the fullest, fulfilling the Protestant Work Ethic, etc.; and as economists and sociologists have noted, in the last thirty or so years, long hours have even become a status symbol among professionals and better-off workers.

But this is a very new way to think about overwork, as I note in part 1. For a long time, philosophers and theologians (ranging from the Roman Stoic Seneca to German theologian Josef Pieper) warned that overwork was a kind of laziness.

And it’s one we should abandon. In fact, as I explain in part 2, some smart companies are already doing that. They’re scaling back on working hours, and their leaders are motivated to do that in part because they’ve come to see overwork as a signal of organizational failure– not a sign that you’ve got highly-motivated employees who want to Crush It, but that you’ve got managers who don’t know how to plan and prioritize.

Freelancers need to rest, too

Manchester-based Web site Creative Boom has an article urging freelancers to “ditch the freelance guilt:”

The first couple of years of freelancing weren’t exactly a walk in the park. But now you’re established, and have a few steady clients under your belt, you don’t have to work seven days a week or 12 hour days any more (well, let’s hope not); you can take your foot off the accelerator.

So why aren’t you doing that? What’s stopping you from enjoying a better work/life balance?… If you’ve been wondering lately if freelancing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, it’s time to embrace one of its key perks – and that’s being in control of how you spend your days.

The article alternates insights from REST with stories about how freelancers and creatives learn how to work a little less, and draw benefit from doing so. It’s a nice reminder that it’s not just Darwin and John Cleese who benefit from deliberate rest; everybody– and especially people any kind of creative work– can benefit from it.

Focus, mind-wandering, and the brain

Psychiatrist and Neuro Business Group founder Srini Pillay has a short piece on the Harvard Business Review blog arguing that “Your Brain Can Only Take So Much Focus,” but that allowing your mind to unfocused can be a good thing:

For years, focus has been the venerated ability amongst all abilities. Since we spend 46.9% of our days with our minds wandering away from a task at hand, we crave the ability to keep it fixed and on task. Yet, if we built PCD [positive constructive daydreaming], 10- and 90- minute naps, and psychological halloweenism [ed: read the piece to see what this means] into our days, we would likely preserve focus for when we need it, and use it much more efficiently too. More importantly, unfocus will allow us to update information in the brain, giving us access to deeper parts of ourselves and enhancing our agility, creativity and decision-making too.

This tracks pretty closely with what I write in REST, which is no surprise. I think the big thing I see in the lives of really creative people is that for them, moving between focused and unfocused states has a lot more intentionality or strategy to it.

Darwin’s Sandwalk

In particular, the habit of doing things that give your mind time to wander soon after a period of focused work is designed to give the subconscious mind a chance to keep working on problems that have occupied, and often eluded, their conscious minds. In particular, Barbara McClintock’s and Charles Darwin’s walks show the hallmarks of being periods meant to exercise the body, clear the mind, but also give the creative time time to pick over problems– and maybe come up with solutions that they couldn’t find through concentrated effort.

Stanford University, where Barbara McClintock walked while thinking about Neurospora

So while Pillay is quite right, we can get even more out of unfocused periods my adding them at the right times, so as to pass ideas between the focused conscious mind, and the unfocused subconscious.

“Our job as creative leaders is to be bouncers at the door of Club Rest”

Campaign Live, an online magazine of the creative industry, declares that “it’s time to join a movement for rest:”

What we need to do is fucking REST.

Not because we’re work-shy fops. Or Luddites who fail to grasp that the world has changed. But because it makes financial sense.

It’s the economics, stupid.

More rest = more creativity = more famous work = more £ for clients = more £ for agencies.

Quite literally: more for less.

“What we need to do is fucking REST” was the working title of my book; alas they didn’t go for it. Even Penguin, which has this piece of art in its reception area, squashed it:

This is Where It's F***ing At: Least It Will Be

What does this mean?

Our job as creative leaders is to be bouncers at the door of Club Rest.

Inside, there’s no rave music and very little dancing. People are reading and playing peek-a-boo with their kids and whittling sticks and thinking about setting up a sausage company.

And tomorrow, rested, their neurons will light up like a New Year’s Eve firework display instead of fizzing, pathetically, like a budget sparkler in the rain.

If we believe in the power of creativity to power our client’s business, then it is beholden upon us as an industry to protect and nurture that creativity.

We need to work hard at not working.

By coincidence, I was just conducting an interview this morning with the head of Agent Marketing, a Liverpool-based advertising, branding, and strategy agency that’s already put this into practice. They’re one of a number of companies that have been experimenting with shorter working hours, and seeing great benefit in increased creativity and productivity.

What’s true of individuals turns out to also be true of organizations: working less– but in a strategic and thoughtful way– and resting more can be a strategy to get more done.

Empty labour is “the simulation of productivity”

I’m starting to read through Roland Paulsen’s work on the concept of “empty labor” for my new project on deliberate rest in the modern workplace, and was impressed by this 2015 article, “Non-work at work: Resistance or what?” (behind firewalls 🙁 alas) Here’s the abstract:

Based on 43 interviews conducted with employees who spend around half of their working-hours on non-work related activities such as ‘cyberloafing’, a typology of empty labour is suggested according to sense of work obligation and potential output in order to set the phenomenon of workplace time-appropriation into a theoretical context in which wasteful aspects of organization and management are taken into account. Soldiering, which emanates from a weak sense of work obligation in the individual, may entail aspects of resistance, but there are also less voluntary forms of empty labour deriving from a lack of relevant work tasks. All types of empty labour are, however, bound up with the simulation of productivity. Therefore, they ironically serve to maintain the capitalist firm’s reputation for efficiency.

I quite like the idea of empty labor as being more than just inefficiency, but rather a “simulation of productivity.”

In my own working days, I find it’s essential to remember that the feeling of productivity– the sense that I’ve got my mind around an idea, that I can see how to finish something– is not the same thing as actually doing the work. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve had to learn that the positive emotional hit that comes during those little a-ha moments are not a substitute for actual words on the page, or things delivered to clients. They’re simulations of productivity, not actual accomplishment.

Shultz hours and the need for breaks

David Leonhardt has a piece in the New York Times about George Shultz’s practice while he was Secretary of State during the Reagan era of taking an hour a week to just think:

When George Shultz was secretary of state in the 1980s, he liked to carve out one hour each week for quiet reflection. He sat down in his office with a pad of paper and pen, closed the door and told his secretary to interrupt him only if one of two people called:

“My wife or the president,” Shultz recalled.

Shultz, who’s now 96, told me that his hour of solitude was the only way he could find time to think about the strategic aspects of his job. Otherwise, he would be constantly pulled into moment-to-moment tactical issues, never able to focus on larger questions of the national interest. And the only way to do great work, in any field, is to find time to consider the larger questions.

This is especially interesting to me because I’m working now on a sequel of sorts to REST, a project that looks at how companies today are finding ways of shortening working hours (like the famous Swedish experiments), moving to a 4-day workweek, and experimenting with other way to help people get their work done and have more time to themselves– free time without email or unfinished projects hanging over them.

One of the reasons it’s possible to shorten the work day is that the conventional workday is awfully inefficient: surveys over the past decade have estimated that between 25% and 50% of knowledge workers’ days are spent dealing with information overload, email deluges, being interrupted, or recovering from distractions. (I’ll leave the specific citations for another post.) So there’s a lot of slack in the system that can be taken up, without a big hit on productivity.

But one of the things that people worry about when they shift from a conventional workday is that they intuit that a certain amount of “unproductive” time can be quite valuable, and can provide either a break from work or a chance to explore new ideas. The problem is that most of these wasted hours are genuinely wasted: checking your Zappos order in the middle of a two-hour meeting isn’t going to lead to a company-transforming insight.

Instead, you have to build in time for breaks, be they regular walks, naps, or Shultz hours. Scheduling them means that you can control when in the day they fall, and thus improve the odds that they’ll yield something useful. Scheduling them also means that you’ll actually take them: in a super-busy job like secretary of state, it’s very easy to never have any time to yourself. Finally, there’s plenty of evidence that practice helps you enter creative states, and that scheduling them both gives you practice, and gives your creative mind a regular time to stretch itself.

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